...As part of her tour, Holly was kind enough to share some secrets of her own—about the process of finding her voice, about the development of her first novel, and even a little about her sophomore novel, due out in ’11!
Miranda Mathison is seventeen and on the edge of everything she wants—art school, a dreamy boyfriend, and a new friend to unlock the secrets left behind by her bad-girl sister, who died mysteriously five years before. Miranda has been the good daughter, holding everything together until she can escape, but now she a secret of her own—one that will jeopardize everything. She takes a pregnancy test, and that’s when things get interesting…
2) I love the title…I know of at least two working titles you had before the final. Can you tell us how you arrived at TELL ME A SECRET?
Ha! Yes, the saga of the titles! Though I think we finally—at the eleventh hour—landed on the best. When the story first came to me, Miranda said, “I don’t have chicken soup in my soul…I have brimstone.” (Yes, I’m one of those people, whose characters talk to them.) Anyway, that was her voice. So the initial draft was called Brimstone Soup. When my publisher called about the pre-empt, they loved everything but the title—and I had to agree. So I sold it as A Light That Never Goes Out (a reference to a Smiths song).
But that title, besides being long, just didn’t lend itself to cover imagery. So I pestered all of my writing friends, kidlit friends, people off the street, to think of titles—we came up with over 200, but none were quite right. Then, the weekend before we HAD to have a final title for the catalog, it finally came to me—it was 2 a.m., I was almost asleep, when I remembered a conversation between Miranda and her sister from the very first chapter: “Tell me a secret, and I’ll tell you one.” That was it! I sat up in bed. I shook my husband! “Honey! Tell Me a Secret! TELL ME A SECRET!” He said, “Mnnnnh.” I took that as a good sign. So I told my editor, and she liked it, too!
3) Describe your voice…Fans of what YA authors will adore TELL ME A SECRET?
Oh, wow. That’s the American Idol question, isn’t it! Do I sing like Pink or Rihanna or the girl in the shower? (For the record: the girl in the shower, definitely!)
Well, I could tell you the authors that I really admire, and I hope my writing would resonate with their readers: Sara Zarr, Laurie Halse Anderson, Rachel Cohn, Sarah Dessen. Ellen Hopkins and Deb Caletti both gave me amazing advance praise, which was such an honor, as I love their books!
4) What was the ah-ha! moment? The I’m-going-to-write-for-teens epiphany?
For a long time, I thought I wanted to write the Great American Novel—until I read The Stinky Cheese Man! That was the aha from adult writing to children’s writing. So I wrote a bunch of completely unpublishable stories for smaller people and had begun a middle grade novel when we hit perhaps our hardest year—in the space of a few months, one of my closest friends’ sister died suddenly, and then my husband and I lost our first daughter at birth. Everything I’d been working on suddenly seemed very empty. I almost gave up writing.
A few months later, I went to a writing conference, and my friend Justina Chen (author of NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL) invited me out to lunch and very kindly asked if I was thinking of writing about the loss. Then we went to hear Libba Bray at the conference (she’d just come out with A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY), and all of a sudden the idea for TELL ME A SECRET landed in my lap. I started writing as fast as I could. Eventually I received a Work-In-Progress grant and kept going, signed with my amazing agent, and he sold it to our first choice!
There wasn’t an “I’m going to write for teens” moment as much as that’s just where my true voice is. It took a lot to finally find it.
5) What do you admire most in other writers? What writing styles or techniques make you cringe?
I love writing with depth, with poetry of expression, with frank truthfulness. A certain amount of suspense is nice, to keep the story moving. If I care about the characters, I will want to know what happens to them.
Cringe…hmm. I always have a hard time reading 3rd person present tense—for some reason my brain isn’t wired to assimilate information that way. If I’ve heard good things about the book, I’ll find it on audio. I love listening to a good YA!
6) Tell us a little something about your main character, Miranda: What’s her greatest strength? Weakness? Why should we admire her? What’s going to make readers want to accompany her on her journey?
I never really thought of her in those terms. First, she was a voice—It’s tough, living in the shadow of a dead girl. Then, as I wrote, I discovered she had this well of fire inside her, though it’s been trapped by grief and mystery and the duty of holding her family together. She has a fascination with freedom, and escape, and it’s what drives her to chip away, a little at a time, at these layers, and to expose the truth—of her sister’s death, of her own secrets, of the family secrets she knows nothing about…all in the midst of her relationship with her boyfriend, and friends who aren’t what she thinks they are, and the big question: what is she going to do about the pregnancy? What is she going to do with the rest of her life? I hope readers will want to find out!
7) Would you have been friends with Miranda when you were in high school?
I think I probably would have—maybe because we have some key similarities? ;)
I tend to be incredibly loyal and give people the benefit of the doubt, which are qualities of Miranda’s childhood friend, Essence. She is the kind of friend that will stick by someone, even through the roughest times. I think I would have recognized that hunger in Miranda for digging deeper, finding the truth of things—and the allure of the forbidden.
8) What’s your favorite YA character? The one you wished you’d dreamed up and written about?
Oh, there are a few! I just adored Sym from Geraldine McCaughrean’s The White Darkness—brilliant and hilarious and odd. Curt from K.L. Going’s Fat Kid Rules the World. Dashti from Shannon Hale’s Book of a Thousand Days. They’re all funny messengers of truth in very different ways.
9) What role, if any, do you think blogging played in getting you published? Would you encourage unpublished authors to get up and running online BEFORE that first sale?
Definitely—more because of connecting with others in the blogging community than getting published. Your novel must stand on its own to find a publisher, but it’s the bloggers who will run the race with you at any stage and help spread the word when it’s time to celebrate!
10) What was the single most important thing you did pre-publication?
When readergirlz (http://readergirlz.blogspot.com/) asked me to join them, I said yes! If you’re not familiar with readergirlz, it’s an online teen lit community connecting readers with authors and community service begun by Justina Chen, Lorie Ann Grover, Dia Calhoun, and Janet Lee Carey. They invited me to come on board about six months later, and since then we’ve added Melissa Walker, Liz Gallagher, and Elizabeth Scott! It’s been a very cool opportunity to work with amazing authors and teens—and talk about excellent YA books. TELL ME A SECRET will be the featured book in August 2010—I hope you’ll stop by!
11) I know you’ve been working on a second YA, tentatively titled STREET CREED. Can you tell us a little secret about the sophomore novel?
The best secret is that my editor loved it! So now we are working on the edits to get it ready for a Fall 2011 launch date. Hmmm, more secrets…I’ve rewritten this six times now…there’s this one scene…amazing boy...sigh…best friend said, “Hubba hubba,” and I was sort of embarrassed that the guys in my life (husband, agent, brother, dad) would eventually read it…ok, I think that’s all I can say for now! *blush*